Replay 58: Freedom vs Liberty

All this week, we’re replaying five episodes about different facets of being in the USA. For more of an explanation on why, see the 4th of July message. Today’s replay is 58: Freedom vs liberty.


Full episode script

In high school debate this particular topic was one that came up often, and was one of my favorite topics. While they’re often used interchangeably, there may be differences between these two words that could have huge impacts on our understanding of governmental limitations.

After all, English, as a language, is great a stealing words from other languages and mashing them up in some very odd ways. The etymology of freedom is Dutch and German, meaning essentially a state of free will, emancipation, deliverance, or state of nature. Liberty, on the other hand, is from a French root that has both the meaning of state of free will, and from the 15th century on, privileges by grant.

In modern governmental theory, the U.S. Supreme Court has delineated the difference between these two ideas more than once. In 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, the court ruled that the right to marry a partner of one’s choice was a freedom, and these laws — the ones preventing intermarriage of races — failed to grant the liberty to exercise it.

If you go back to Thomas Jefferson’s writings, he makes the argument that a person’s “natural rights” were to be limited very carefully, quite intentionally using phrases like “freedom of the press” next to “public liberty in law.”